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What 2019 taught us about creating a culture of belonging

One year ago, we publicly shared our philosophy on inclusion. Here’s how we did in 2019 and what we learned along the way.
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What 2019 taught us about creating a culture of belonging

Whether you call it a discussion or a debate, there’s a long-standing conversation in business around culture. This debate is about when the right time is to invest in people and culture. Some camps feel the urgency to achieve product-market fit and prove themselves as a business before they start thinking about building an intentional culture (meaning, more than perks and ping-pong tables). Others believe that purpose drives performance and that teams that feel connected to the company’s culture — its mission, purpose, and impact — are more invested in seeing the company perform and, therefore, achieve long-term goals.

Anyone who follows Abstract knows that we fall into the second camp, but it wasn’t a straight line to get there. From the beginning, our co-founders Josh and Kevin knew they wanted to do things differently. They embraced a remote work culture. They chose Aileen Lee at Cowboy Ventures to lead their seed round and fill their first board seat. Josh and Kevin faced the same urgency to prove their business model and initially hired people they knew to optimize for speed and trust. But after that initial sprint, they did something very few founders do. They chose inclusion. They committed to it publicly. They funded it by hiring an inclusion team. They built an employer brand to attract diverse talent. As Josh and Kevin said here, "The freedom to choose is a form of power. It’s a form of privilege. And we are using this power to build an inclusive Abstract."

The freedom to choose is a form of power. It’s a form of privilege. We are using this power to build an inclusive Abstract.

In 2018, we started to share our journey to bring people into Abstract in a way that was fair, equitable, and inclusive. And throughout 2019, we have learned a lot. We’ve made a lot of mistakes — big, hard, emotional mistakes that have challenged each of us professionally, socially, and culturally. But through this work, we have achieved something remarkable. Through our inclusion work, our team feels like they belong at Abstract. This is not the kind of belonging you pick up from a tagline or multiple-choice question. This year, 97% of our team reported a feeling of belonging in our culture, even though we have never used that vocabulary internally. 

To us, this feels genuine, in part because it wasn’t prompted, but also because it points to the intention our co-founders set in the very beginning. Josh and Kevin regularly remind us that how we are building Abstract is just as important as what we are building. 

With that in mind, we are going to share how our inclusion efforts performed this year — both qualitatively and quantitatively. First, I will share the key takeaways from our inclusion data. Then we’ll hear from Josh and Kevin to learn more about what they noticed from our inclusion work this year. We hope that by sharing the truth about what we learned — including the hard, messy stuff that can feel vulnerable to share — we can support other founders who may want to grow in a similar way while also being transparent and accountable to the work we still need to do.

Quantitative results: Abstract’s 2019 inclusion performance by numbers

We believe that you have to understand a problem in order to solve it, so measurement is a critical part of our inclusion strategy. 

This year, we grew 120% and representation across all of our demographics has been fairly stable, ranging from 1–7% difference for all of our underrepresented groups. The percentage of employees who identify as African American grew by 8%, the percentage of women or non-binary-identifying people grew by 9%, women of color increased by 7%, and the number of veterans grew by 1%. 

Although maintaining balance and improving representation gets harder with scale, this shows us that it’s not impossible. We have room to improve our representation within Latinx and Native American populations as well as with people with disabilities, but overall our numbers are well above the averages for tech companies. We also know that attrition, while low, played a part in our numbers, so we continued our protocol for exit interviews when people decide to move on, so that we can learn how to improve the experience at Abstract for our entire team, including our underrepresented groups.

Data is as of December 15, 2019, upon Abstract’s fiscal year-end. Data points have been rounded to the nearest whole number.

We sent out our first employee engagement survey this year and received a satisfaction rating of 4.5 out of 5. The three most common words associated with our culture were inclusive, collaborative, and open. And, 97% of our employees said they feel like they belong at Abstract. We haven’t used the term “belonging” in our communications, so this outcome feels genuine to us and we’re really proud of that. We attribute this to our employer brand work in part because we’ve seen so many candidates discover Abstract and join the team because of the philosophy we communicate and the culture of inclusion we are co-creating. 

That said, there are some areas where we can improve. As we’ve grown and changed systems and leadership internally, some of our employees, specifically women and women of color, shared that they wanted better systems for career path and equity around promotion. We take this very seriously, and their feedback has led to additional support being brought in from the finance and HR teams to build better structures (e.g., refined career ladders, performance review process, training, etc.) and communicate these expectations to teams. 

Qualitative results: 2019 inclusion take-aways from our founding team

Josh Brewer, Co-Founder + Chief Executive Officer 

When Kevin and I set out to build Abstract, we wanted to prove that it was possible as a venture-backed company to build a world-class, inclusive, remote-friendly team. We were tired of hearing excuses from tech companies about why inclusion couldn’t be a priority. To be fair, hiring inclusively takes more time, more staff, more investment. And this goes against most people’s basic instincts — even venture as an institution — and the pressures that come with building for speed and competition. But now, a year after sharing our inclusion philosophy, I can confidently say that it is possible to build an incredible, dynamic, brilliant team inclusively.

I see the demographic stats above and know that it was this team — this inclusive, diverse team — that created our success. In the annual Design Tools survey by UXTools, Abstract usage grew more than 5 times from 3% of respondents to 15%. And designers using Abstract for handoff doubled this year. We are just knocking at the door of what is possible for our product, and it is our team that got us here and will take us to the next level.

Inclusion work matters. It’s incredibly important work, but I won’t sugarcoat it: This work is really hard. As a founder, a lot goes into making the decision and committing resources to support it, but the real work happens after that. It’s the doing, the integration piece, where the work really starts. That’s why, as a founder, you have to commit to the work even when it gets hard. You have to be willing to fund it. You have to be willing to start understanding systemic oppression and how it shows up in the employee lifecycle. You have to be willing to go beyond just talking about it and into actually doing it. You have to be willing to model the kind of behavior you want to see in your team. 

For me, personally, this has meant confronting my unconscious bias and privilege and making sure I create enough psychological safety with my team so we can be honest and vulnerable in our relationships. It’s hard work and we’ve made plenty of mistakes. But it’s the kind of hard work that makes you a better person, leader, and citizen if you’re willing.

Inclusion is the pathway to a culture of connectedness, trust, and belonging. And it’s absolutely worth it on every possible level.

I believe that companies can be change-agents of culture, and in order to do that, we have to look in the mirror and do the hard, human work that makes us hold back from each other. We have to address the stories that make us afraid to lean in and be open with each other. It’s about community — real community that we are building to include all backgrounds, able-bodiedness, geographies, and gender identities. While this is an initiative that starts with executive buy-in, executives don’t make it successful. It only works as a community effort, wherein everyone agrees that in this space, we are going to do things differently. I think that’s why 97% of our team reported feeling a sense of belonging. That doesn’t mean it was easy or seamless. Getting to belonging means traversing through all the muck that makes people feel separated. Inclusion is the pathway to a culture of connectedness, trust, and belonging, and it’s work that is never done. That’s what you’re signing up for. And it’s absolutely worth it on every possible level. 

We have learned so much this year. As we think about where we want to focus in 2020, I am excited to find new ways to engage my team around this work and encourage them to lean in and make it their own. We want our team to grow and be part of this change.

Kevin Smith, Co-Founder + Chief Product Officer 

Almost a year ago now, we were talking through how to grow our company culture inclusively and define our employer brand. That conversation (and many of the ones that followed) set the tone for some big revelations we started having as we looked beyond our privilege and through the perspective of our employees from underrepresented communities. 

We explored the future of remote work and the possibility for the American economy, for healing, for wealth to flow to deserving people in secondary markets.

As we started to talk about the choices we were making, we learned about the connection between inclusion and social justice. We explored the future of remote work and the possibility for the American economy, for healing, for wealth to flow to deserving people in secondary markets. We learned about identity and the critical role that we could play by bringing intersectionality into our hiring strategy and hiring leaders from underrepresented groups. It was through bringing people in, giving them a platform to tell their story and listening that we began to see just how big this work really is. 

The ideas our team shared and the events they put together became sparks that attracted people from communities Josh and I didn’t even know existed. We partnered with Unity to sponsor AfroTech and built programming for Techqueria, hosting events to give underrepresented groups within those community a space to gather. Our “Good Intentions Are Not Enough” t-shirt started unexpected dialogues with people who would share their frustrations with excuses. Stories from our blog were republished on People of Color in Tech and started to go viral on sites like LinkedIn. We partnered with the D&I experts at Awaken, learned from the team at Ready Set, and trained our managers with the support of Collective - a DEI Lab. People from communities of color began to seek us out — some of whom joined the team, some of whom shared support, and some of whom used our work to start conversations at their companies. This didn’t happen because we are experts (though I’ll argue that Edgardo and his team are) but because we are human beings doing our best to create space for others, and we are willing to learn through the process. 

One of the things I’m most proud of is that candidates who join Abstract are equally motivated by our mission and our product. We believe that how we build our company is just as important as what we’re building, but as a founder seeing this play out in real life feels huge. I think about amazing employees who have joined us — like JT, an Abstract software engineer, who joined us because of the stories our team was sharing and has added his voice to that list. I think about all of these people who have used their platforms to support us and experience to show us the way. I think about everything that’s happened this year, realizing it’s just starting, and I am humbled. 

This is so much bigger than Josh and me, bigger than Abstract. It’s a community of people coming together and co-creating another way to live, work, and treat each other. It’s an idea that applies to remote work and has the potential to impact people economically, socially, and financially — regardless of geography. It’s an extended network saying, "YEAH, THAT" and leaning in to support its growth. It’s a team showing up through really tough conversations and business challenges to evolve as humans who then bring it to the world around them. All of this work energizes our people, our teams, our company, and the communities around us. It’s a movement that is being amplified because people really believe in it. 

To see this — to understand that the idea we talked about around a table is now something that resonates so deeply with people — feels incredible because it feels authentic. This experience has been more rewarding than I could have ever expected and I am so grateful to the team for showing up to some of the hardest work anyone has ever tried. I am also incredibly grateful for all of the people outside of Abstract who have come into our lives this year. 

I know that this is just the beginning and I’m in for this work, wherever it takes us next. 

Setting our sights on 2020 

In October 2019, I led the People and Inclusion Team to New Orleans to take the Undoing Racism workshop as a group. It was hard to look at the systems of power we have all grown up with — systems that were designed to dehumanize people of difference and cause separation. As a team, we realized that we wanted to bring humanity back into the culture of our People Team and do our part to maintain and preserve humanity in our company culture. That became our mission statement and, while we are not done, we think of inclusion work as work to improve a human system. This means bringing inclusion into hiring, performance management, benefits, communication, learning and development, and leadership. By bringing humanity into everything we do, we hope to create a model for what a healthy, human, work culture can be.

If this post has made you feel something, if you want to work somewhere that values what they do and how they do it, if you feel like you can help us achieve our mission then we want to hear from you. You can learn more about working with Abstract on our career page or drop me a line on LinkedIn

Until then, we wish you a safe and happy new year.

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